Twenty years ago, Whitney Houston’s recording of Dolly Parton’s ”I Will Always Love You” ascended to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 — and the lead single from the smash soundtrack to Houston’s 1992 film debut, The Bodyguard, stayed there for a record 14 weeks. The principals involved recall the making of Houston’s definitive pop moment.
David Foster, producer
I had met Kevin Costner. He invited my wife and me to the premiere of [1990’s] Dances With Wolves. And then he said, ”I’m doing this next thing. I think you’d be the right guy to do the music for it.”
Clive Davis, producer
I first got involved after I saw a very early, very rough version of the film. I wrote a letter to both Kevin Costner and [director] Mick Jackson, and I said, ”I’m very nervous that you’re missing a basic element here, and that you really have given very little music for this film.”
The song that they had chosen [for the big single] was ”What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” It’s a great hook. But when you dig down deep, it didn’t seem like there was much substance there for Whitney. I did a demo for her, and she asked me to try [the demo] one more time. She was very polite about it.
Rickey Minor, Houston’s musical director and bandleader
They were getting ready to record it, and then Fried Green Tomatoes came out and they used it for their ending.
I called Kevin and feigned sadness, like, ”Oh, Kevin, this is such a bummer. We can’t use this song now!” He told me to listen to ”I Will Always Love You,” and that it was the perfect song. So I ran down to a record store in Malibu and bought the Linda Ronstadt version — that was the only one I could find. The minute I heard it, I knew I could make it work with Whitney.
We flew with the rhythm section of the band and the sax player to the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, where they were shooting.
Whitney couldn’t really record until, like, midnight because she was filming all day. She was incredible. Like a laser beam. Like a racehorse — she would just step up to the microphone and go.
Kirk Whalum, saxophonist
We got to Miami, and Whitney insisted on singing the song live in the film, and she wanted her band to be playing along with her.
Right before we started, I called Dolly Parton. I told her, ”We’re doing your song — I got the Linda Ronstadt version.” And she goes, ”Oh, no! You have to go get my version, because there’s another verse.” She gave me the lyrics to the final verse over the phone — ”And I wish you joy and happiness” — right before I went downstairs. We had to call an audible at the last minute and make the song, like, 40 seconds longer after the director had already worked it out. But that last verse is so important. Can you imagine that song without that lyric?
Whitney came out, sang the song — I think we did it twice — and what everyone has is the first take.
The a cappella part was Kevin’s idea. And I was like, ”Kevin, you’re a great actor, but that is not a good idea.” But I relented. So Whitney’s standing in the ballroom of the hotel, and we’re rolling, and she goes, ”If I…” and I was like, ”Oh my God.” I was standing beside Whitney’s mother, and she turned to me and said, ”You’re witnessing greatness right now.”
Radio approached my promotion team and asked us to take off that a cappella beginning, and I absolutely refused. To me, this was magic.
Van Toffler, president of MTV
There are moments in music where you pair a song with the right visual, sort of like what happened with Madonna and ”Like a Virgin” at the VMAs. For Whitney, starring opposite a major movie star with a song that perfect just catapulted her to another level.
I moved to Paris after that. I knew the record was out, but I didn’t realize how big the song was. I’m on the subway, and I heard this girl singing the song — and then she started singing along to the sax solo.
That video was in heavy rotation next to Alice in Chains and Snoop. She won the MTV Movie Award for Best Song From a Movie in 1993, and she sang it on the show. Let’s just say that occasionally people are singing not-live. So to see somebody with that capability just stand up and sing, it’s quite overwhelming.
Whitney felt like the message was that God’s love is indescribable. And not only that, it’s the only love that’s guaranteed.
When you think about how many rules that song broke for radio — it was a ballad, it was an R&B singer doing a country song, it’s got that a cappella part, it’s long. It was a perfect storm. I don’t want to overdramatize, but it is the love song of the century.